A common talking-point in winemaking circles concerns the relative merits of country wine and wine made from concentrated grape juice compound. In this section, therefore, I shall briefly describe the different varieties of concentrate which are available and consider the quality of the wine which they produce.
The first point to make is that the quality of the concentrated grape juices sold today is generally good, and consistent from year to year. They start life as ordinary, single strength grape juice in one of the world's winemaking regions - often Italy, Spain or Cyprus. Here it is stored until required, using sulphur dioxide as a preservative. It is then "flash" pasteurized, which removes much of the sulphur and sterilizes the juice, and subsequently concentrated under vacuum at 40 degrees C to a specific gravity of 1.325 or thereabouts.
Vacuum concentration has the great advantage that it does not affect the flavor although careful control of heating at all stages is necessary to avoid caramelization of the sugar-rich juice. When the concentrates reach this country, they are blended to eliminate the variations in quality that inevitably occur from year to year.
The bigger suppliers have produced ever more sophisticated and complex blends, combining grape concentrate with bulk additives such as glucose syrup and agents such as tannin and lactic acid. This has led to greater simplicity in winemaking and a more attractive and consistent end product.
Incidentally, the blended grape juice concentrates (which may be called "compounds") are often sold together with other winemaking equipment such as yeast, Campden tablets and nutrient under the name -wine kits.
One of the biggest advantages of grape juice compounds is that they avoid the cookery aspect of country winemaking. They contain all the flavor, acid, nutrient and tannin required. In theory, therefore, when the concentrate is diluted with water, fermented and cleared, it should produce a drink at least as good as some commercially produced wines (though that in itself may not be saying very much!)
But even so, the best quality grape juices are simply too valuable to use in concentrates, a fact which automatically sets a limit on the quality of the wine one can make. (On the other hand, of course, wine itself made from the very best grapes is rather expensive and not an everyday drink.) The situation is different in the USA, where the excess of home-grown grapes makes it possible to produce high quality concentrates at a reasonable price.
Another important point for a beginner is that the failure rate in winemaking with concentrates is lower than that in country winemaking. A good idea, is for a beginner to make two batches of wine on his one from a concentrate, one from country ingredients and compare the two. This raises the problem of which concentrate to use, for there is a bewildering variety available. The first decision should be whether you want a red, a white or a rose - this is a matter of personal taste. I think the reds tend to be better, perhaps because the more delicate white grape juice does not lend itself quite so well to the concentration process.
Having made this decision, you must then select which quality you want to buy. There are really three types to choose from:
1) "Quick" wine concentrates: for producing wine in three or even two weeks.
2) "Standard" wine concentrates: the ones which require extra sugar to be added during fermentation (these may be labeled fast fermenting).
3) "Superior" quality concentrates: these contain all the natural grape sugar needed for fermentation.
Of course, each of these varieties is available under the makers' own brand names.
QUICK WINE CONCENTRATES
The manufacturers claim that these products can produce wine in as little as three (sometimes even two!) weeks, but this raises an interesting paradox. In general, patience is the order of the day in winemaking. A slow, steady fermentation, time to clear, and time to mature are all important in adding to the finished quality. It follows, therefore, that a "quick" wine can never be as good as a standard one.
The differences in preparation time between "quick" and "normal" grape juice compounds lie partly in the fermentation time, but mostly in the maturation time (or, rather, the lack of it). The fast fermenting compounds are formulated with added glucose sugar rather than the more complex sugars which would, in theory at any rate, require slightly longer to ferment. As far as maturation is concerned, the manufacturers add to the "quick" compounds various ingredients that are supposed to mimic the flavor of a matured wine so that it is drinkable at once.
These ingredients vary from company to company, ranging from fruit juices and other flavorings to simple glucose compounds. The whole subject is somewhat confusing, so I am grateful to CWE, who produced Cellar 21, a three-week wine, for their comments: "In reality, almost all home-wine compounds producing table-wine strength (not more than 12% alcohol) are fairly fast fermenting. The main difference, in our opinion, is that three-week wines are drinkable so much sooner. In Cellar 21, our own range, fermentation starts promptly because of the method of reconstituting the yeast. The presence of relatively large amounts of nutrient in the compound, and the absence of the one or two varieties of grape concentrate which are characteristically slow fermenters, increases the speed of fermentation slightly. The unfermentable sugars in glucose syrup contribute a mellow roundness which makes the finished wine less harsh than, say, a freshly fermented Connoisseur's Choice type." (This is the Superior quality brand name used by CWE.)
But what of the taste and bouquet? You shouldn't expect much bouquet in a "quick" wine, but you may get a pleasantly quaffable plonk. It is worth mentioning that even these quick wines will improve to some extent with keeping - the manufacturer will probably mention a recommended time on the instruction leaflet.
This is the grape juice that needs the addition of some sugar during fermentation - usually 8 or 10 ounces per gallon (250-300 grams). It comes in a number of qualities ranging from simple, economical "House Red" and "HouseWhite" varieties to the better quality reds and whites identified by their descriptions: full-bodied red, medium reo, dry red, dry full red, dry crisp white, sweet white, and so forth. This seems sensible, for a grape compound never produces the "real" wine of speicif grape varieties, only a similar type.
Despite all this, the manufacturers do still try to blend their concentrates so they resemble commercially produced wine. This raises one possible criticism of standard kits: they sometimes produce a wine rather lacking in body. Certainly in comparative tastings these wines are confused with the real thing rather less often that the "superior" variety! However, they do provide a way of making enjoyable wine cheaply, without any fuss or mess; and they will definitely improve with keeping for a year or two. An important point: this is the concentrate to use if you add grape juice to your country wines.
If you have an urge to experiment, you might like to try the concentrates for making Vermouth and Sherry. In the first case, a sachet of powdered herbs is infused in the wine during fermentation to produce the characteristic vermouth flavor. This always seems to me to produce an unpleasantly strong flavor: my advice would be to put the herbs in a small, sterile nylon mesh bag and suspend this in the wine, tasting it every few days until you are happy with the result. The bag of herbs can then be removed.
The sherry concentrates make a wine which has to be oxidized as described later. The problem here is that while you might get something resembling a cheap sherry bought in a shop, you might equally well get something completely undrinkable - the results are very variable, simply because of the complexity of making the wine. Although vermouth and sherry may not be the ideal concentrates for a beginner, there is also a range of fruit concentrates which are cheap, great fun to make, and usually very successful. The range includes Blackberry, Elderberry, Grape and Bilberry, Grape and Cherry, Grape and Apricot, and many others. These come under the heading of standard concentrate because they need sugar adding; they are worth trying at least once.
These concentrates are the ones the connoisseur wants! Unfortunately, as one would expect, they are also more expensive (but still far cheaper than buying wine from the wine shop). These concentrates contain all the natural grape sugar needed to produce a normal table wine (although "dessert" varieties may need more sugar adding).
All that is necessary is to open the can, pour the concentrate into a demijohn, add water and yeast, and leave it to ferment. In my opinion, the fermentation should be conducted at 20 - 22 C (68 - 72 F) even if this means it takes slightly longer: the subtle chemical changes responsible for bouquet and flavor take time to develop, and a slower fermentation helps. Moreover, a slow and steady fermentation resembles the commercial winemaker's work more than a quick one. After fermentation and racking, the wine is left to clear, with the addition of a Campden tablet to protect against infection and oxidation. I do not really think it desirable to fine or filter these better quality compounds. Given time, the wine should clear on its own, and it can then be racked again and bottled. Although you will doubtless succumb to the temptation to try some fairly soon, do keep as much as possible to mature. The reds certainly benefit from keeping - in my experience, for two years or more. The whites are ready much sooner, of course. When the time comes to drink the wine, serve the whites slightly chilled, and the reds at room temperature. Be careful not to disturb any sediment in the reds and open the bottles at least an hour before serving. Cheers!
Original posting date
01 January 2018